Katherine May wrote her memoir, ‘The Electricity of Every Living Thing’ to creatively document her journey through identifying with Asperger’s Syndrome, while balancing the tasks and chores of everyday life. Seeking to find harmony, despite the stigma and pressures society places on a woman and mother, she embarks on tough hiking trips, reflecting upon what’s important to her, and how to cope. Can she forge through the fragile landscape of everyday encounters without a map, or a mask?.. Review by Emma Robdale.
“It feels as though I have two different selves; a desperate, animal self, emerging in chaos, and a calm, wise human, squinting to recognize her twin.”
‘Fake it until you make it’ is a story known by many women with Asperger’s… even the ones who don’t realize they’re on the spectrum! Katherine May, trying to make sense of difficulties, finds herself relating to the diagnosis. But not to the stereotype of Asperger’s,
“The boy who’s more machine than human, who lists facts, who cannot look at you. Who lives with his mother because he can’t cope alone…”
May bullet-points ASD qualities that are subtle, unknown and misunderstood, even to clinical practitioners; “Fuck! Autism… I never would have thought of that!” says her own doctor, when she suggests it….
“To be exhausted by always pretending to be normal, but fearful the ‘Real You’ will be rejected.”
Many women who are overwhelmed by panic-attacks, depression, OCD and eating disorders may not ever have considered themselves as on the spectrum. Katherine often finds herself needing to explain what, ‘Asperger’s’ means, as people question her diagnosis, or tell her it’s, “Unfortunate… but I couldn’t tell!”… a line of response she finds upsetting. Autism is personal, and not a problem imposed on society; it’s about identity. Katherine describes the thought of losing her autistic qualities as more distressing than a face-transplant…
“Imagine submitting yourself to an operation that changes all that you are, your way of relating to other people, your way of thinking, and your way of perceiving the world!!! I don’t want a cure for being myself.”
Although this book covers sensitive subject matter, it’s also desperately funny.
“My son demands Mr. Whippy over artisan ice-cream. He spills things. I get raggedly bad-tempered. I scold him for sloshing milk over the table… in the process tipping the whole glass over myself!”
Pages are littered with incidents where Katherine hasn’t got things quite right and realizes just afterwards, such as appearing naked around a curtain after a gynaecology examination…not realizing it was no-longer appropriate! The book is cringingly relatable to anyone who’s anxious, introspective and clumsy (physically or socially)! After managing into her forties, Katherine mulls over why she seeks diagnosis…
“Perhaps I’m hoping that people will love me a tiny bit more for knowing I can’t help it?… That I’ll never be able to access the easy patience that I see in everyone else. Perhaps I’m hoping for a better life story, a coherent, tidy narrative arc finally drawing my scattergun life together?”
Katherine describes her ‘adult self’ as a, “a parrot, a mynah bird”, having learned social nuances from observation. She ‘masks’ so well that, even when trying to seek psychiatric help, she isn’t able to let her guard down,
“Underneath that carefully learned set of gestures is raw, boiling chaos. I cling to the right to cover.”
So she isn’t taken seriously. She describes herself as astutely ‘well-adjusted’…. but realizes it was humiliating and often isolating childhood experiences, which shaped her,
“There were groups of little girls playing together, all of whom had neat, thin bodies, perfect pony tails, and a stricken interest in personal grooming… and then there was me, alone, looking generally disheveled. Struggling to understand what they were talking about.”
She felt she had little in common with other children; everything she did seemed to ‘offend’. They had a monstrous fascination of her, and she was so desperate for affection, she’d play into this, occasionally flashing pubic-hair to be included. As she aged she began altering her personality to ‘fit in’ rather than ‘shock’, but by adulthood found she was simply putting on a different kind of show…
Trapped in perpetual fakeness, she scrambles to keep up a contented, charming demeanour. One friend commented, “You know how intense you can get when you’re drunk!” Taking the smallest criticism as personal feedback, terrified her social shield has cracked, she tries not to ‘slip’ or relax again.
“It’s not that I fail to manage the simplest challenge… but that I pass too well. I’m addicted. Not just in the sense of going unnoticed. I want more than that. I want to be well adjusted to be a point of inspiration… hyper-normal. Everyone’s favourite! I don’t care about the cost, the way it breaks me open, exhausts and sickens me…”
She often puts other people’s happiness first, describing herself as a ‘people pleaser’. But performing for so long has caused her to lose a sense of what her ‘true’ wants and desires are. And, when new stresses arise with the arrival of her son Bert, Katherine feels her coping strategies are stretched, and worsened by tongue-wagging mothers. She fears re-living isolation and rejection as she finds many new situations deeply challenging,
“I love him. I love him. I want him to be happy. I don’t want him to be upset like this. When he cries, I can’t hear anything else. It’s agony. I lose all perspective.”
She has powerful sensory reactions to her environment, describing it as ‘electricity’ which pulsates, at points wonderfully consuming… other times far too intense (like screaming at children’s parties… or hand-dryers in toilets!).
“This is me right now, crumpled, incoherent, gasping for breath. Flapping my forearms at the elbows like a hyperactive windscreen wiper.”
The book vividly (and humorously) describes battles in a world where Katherine often feels off kilter. And, at a point where she feels she’s lost a sense of identity, she escapes into the wilderness… Undertaking a series of intense, and very calculated hiking trips, allowing herself to bathe in isolation.
“All this wonderful diversity is invisible in the winter, but in a couple of months, it will begin again: buds, blossom, and then apples which will fall to reveal naked branches.”
Poetic and intensely evocative. I read this as a metaphor that she feels elements of her personality retract into hibernation, but then unveil when safe. For me, her most important reflection wasn’t when sight-seeing tall forests and sparkling lakes, but when sliding through wind, rain and mud…
“You have to know when to give up!”
Save your strength; know what battles you need it for. You can’t win them all, and you can’t win them alone. When the elements were truly against her, she got picked up by her husband (known as ‘H’). Always on-hand, despite not fully understanding her anxieties, and sometimes aggressive meltdowns,
“I realize, as I’m coming out of my reboot, I’m shouting ‘fuck off leave me alone’ at H… who’s heartily sick of my shit these days.”
Her journey is about discovering where she can compromise, where she can’t, and building upon the relationships that matter to her; she forces herself to hold hands, (something she finds ‘grindingly’ uncomfortable) to support a friend though a cow phobia. She describes her close friends as ‘adoring’, but because of the stigma portraying autistic individuals as perpetually ‘lonely’ she felt she needed to hide her sociability when seeking diagnosis,
“Apparently society is supposed to find me repellent!”
Sadly the stigma of ‘autism’ as an inconvenience to others, instead of a profoundly individual experience, is deeply entrenched. After an initial detoxification of extreme mountaineering, Katherine slows… feeling like she’s missing elements of family life. She’s not seeking isolation, rather space. She begins taking ‘H’ and her son Bert on walking trips. Katherine realizes that she needs the people closest to her to understand the way interactions affect her,
“People carry electricity; they have a current that surges around my body until I’m exhausted. It’s hard to pinpoint what it is, exactly; something about their noise, their unruly movement, the unpredictable demands they might make on me. It makes the air feel thick, like humanity has not a scent, but a texture. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe. I had to come to the woods to escape…”
As well as being a very raw, truthful portrayal of personal ordeal, it’s also very wry; splicing together funny, and terribly awkward encounters with a very real and consuming desire to walk free and alone. Katherine muses,
“Perhaps walking is the only place I don’t have to pass?”
As a Neurodivergent person, I find parts resonate uncannily… it’s not a book about Autism; clinical and unrelatable; It’s a book about a person trying to make sense of their story. There’s no inherent message other than life is messy, turbulent and thus anxiety provoking… But for me, Katherine’s reflections resonated that, if nothing else, it’s important to know yourself, understand what drives, irritates, and liberates you… Even if you choose to keep it secret from everyone else.
The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home’ is published by Orion Publishing Co. Available via Hive for £7.89
Katherine May’s second book ‘Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen’ will be available on Amazon for £10.49 on 4 February 2020